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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Czech Rockers Pulnoc Put Music Over Politics

There was electricity in the air backstage at the Kennel Club here Friday night when Jello Biafra embraced Milan (Mejla) Hlavsa.

Biafra, whose successful fight in 1988 against obscenity charges made him a prominent dissident rocker in the United States, was at the club to see West Coast debut of Czechoslovakia’s leading dissident rocker and his band Pulnoc.

“It was deeply emotional hearing what the band went through,” Biafra said of Hlavsa’s 20-year struggle--first with the seminal Czech underground band the Plastic People of the Universe--against artistic oppression at home. That struggle has culminated with the brief, seven-city U.S. tour of Hlavsa’s new band, which stopped here Friday before ending Saturday in Seattle.

“I was near tears,” Biafra said.

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The story of Hlavsa’s ordeals--which have included several jail stints for challenging bans on freedom of speech in Czechoslovakia--are reason enough to praise the 37-year-old bassist-composer.

The Plastic People won acclaim in the West in the ‘70s and ‘80s after tapes of performances were smuggled out and released in album form--some of which are still available through the New Music Distribution import service. But at home the group could perform only at a truly underground level, playing mostly in secret at parties held by supporters in the art community.

With government restrictions loosening in the Eastern Bloc in the glasnost age, Hlavsa’s new band is allowed to perform in the open about once a month--albeit only as non-paid “amateurs” and then at government-sponsored events. All the band members have regular jobs as laborers.

And the social-political thaw (though not progressing as fast as in the Soviet Union) has allowed the band to make the previously undreamed-of U.S. tour.

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The band’s struggle is, as Pulnoc’s U.S. manager Hope Carr put it, a “sexy” story, and it has been the focus of U.S. media coverage of the tour, which started two weeks ago in Chicago.

But there’s another, perhaps more important story: This band is compelling musically. The enthusiasm with which the crowd at the Kennel Club--a mix of Czech expatriates and curious Americans--greeted the band was entirely justified.

There has been a seemingly endless stream of faceless Eastern Bloc rock that has come to the West through the widening cracks in the Iron Curtain in the last several years, but each act--from Avtograf to Kino--has proven little more than a stale rehash of ‘70s arena rock or sappy glasnost-pandering pop.

Pulnoc--the name, pronounced pool-notz , means Midnight--is quite a different matter, possessing a powerful and unique vision that not only stands head and shoulders above its Iron Curtain counterparts, but is comparable to that of top Western rock artists.

On record, the Plastic People--which formed shortly after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to squash the reform-minded government of Alexander Dubcek in 1968--dealt in an angular, disjointed sound coupled with social satire comparable to the work of U.S. figures Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground and the Fugs. The sophistication and artistry was notable, but nothing in it could have prepared people for the frequently stunning concert here.

The monolithic riffing that characterizes many of Pulnoc’s songs is reminiscent of King Crimson’s progressive, Gothic-art period or Metallica’s sheet of sound approach, while there’s a propulsive, aggressive quality that recalls Iggy Pop.

But also at the heart of music are the native Czech sounds that are apparent in the modes and modulations anchored by Hlavsa’s solid bass lines. Yet this is not Czech folk-rock by any stretch of the imagination, though at times the combination of those elements with guitarist Karel Jancak’s stinging playing comes off like Bohemian surf music.

But, much to the dismay of Hlavsa, 37, the quality of the music has often been overlooked by the U.S. media in favor of the political angle.

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“We don’t play to change the political system,” he said, frustratedly, while sightseeing here Friday. “We play because we’re musicians. The system forced us to be political.”

The songs bear him out. Sung in Czech, mostly by the pure-voiced, 24-year-old Michaela (Micha) Nemcova, the music conveys a steely image as her otherwise soft features and warm eyes turned severe and penetratingly icy. But when translated backstage, the lyrics proved impressionistic and emotional, and not overtly political at all.

“This should be a musical statement, but everyone pulls the politics out of it,” explained Zbynek Jonak, an old friend of Hlavsa’s who now lives in Carmel. He served as Pulnoc’s translator in San Francisco. “If I was a musician and everyone (in the media) focused on my politics, I’d be upset too.”

The music is actually the product of two generations of Prague rock. Hlavsa’s role--along with two other original Plastic People--is crucial. But no less important is the role played by the four younger members, especially operatically trained Nemcova (six months pregnant with twins) and 24-year-old guitarist Jancak. His love for contemporary American innovators such as Sonic Youth seems like a particularly strong influence. And as a guitarist Jancak could stand fret to fret with the West’s top heroes.

The younger musicians have little memory of pre-1968 Czechoslovakia and no personal experience with political imprisonment. But they have other problems they have overcome.

“There is no culture there for the teens, no nightclubs, nothing to do,” he said before the show. At age 20, he says, he was saved by “music and Jesus Christ” and now is enjoying the relative freedom that has come to his country.

That, Hlavsa, acknowledges, is part of Pulnoc’s story and a foundation of its music. But he hopes that Americans will learn to look beyond that and accept Pulnoc for what it is, on its own terms.

“The point is not to tell them what we’ve been through or the hardships, but what is now,” he said. “We don’t try to do any storytelling. We give them what is now, and it’s up to the Americans to relate to it.”

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